From his Invention of the Supermodel to his pioneering take on craftsmanship, we explore the legacy of a true artist, Azzedine Alaïa.
Tunisian-born designer Azzedine Alaïa, a fashion iconoclast whose clingy styles helped define the 1980s, and who dressed famous women from Hollywood to the White House, died on November 18th at the age of 77. The Paris-based, pint-sized fashion powerhouse, who became both a dominating presence and industry rebel while carving his own path in the swaths of the French fashion world, left behind a legacy of body-hugging, sensual designs that somehow blended raw sexuality and female empowerment.
Born in Tunis in 1940 to wheat farmers, Alaïa was an early devotee to Vogue and worked his way into the local Institut Supérieur des Beaux Arts in Tunis to study sculpture. He noted that, ‘when I realised I couldn’t be an amazing sculptor, I changed direction,’ segueing into fashion. He began assisting a dress-maker, and having built up a private client base, he moved to Paris in 1957. He soon got a job at Christian Dior, in the midst of the Algerian war, but was dismissed for having incorrect immigration papers after five days.
From Dior he moved to Guy Laroche, where he spent two seasons, then to Thierry Mugler, with a series of high-society patrons allowing him to set up his own workshop at the same time. In 1979 he opened his own atelier, where Hollywood stars such as Greta Garbo and the Seventies jet-set, which included Marie-Hélène de Rothschild, came regularly for fittings, which was followed by his first ready-to-wear collection in 1980, in conjunction with a move to a studio in the Marais. Moulded in leather, it was as erotically charged as it was ground-breaking, with the designer shaping women’s bodies into the best versions possible, dismissing exterior embellishment for internal rigour, creating perfectly fitted dresses that celebrated the female form.
Few designers of Alaïa’s level still cut their own clothing patterns, sew samples, and conduct fittings, but the Tunisian designer never stopped using a needle and thread. He is a master of navigating fabric weights and the creation and execution of each piece is crucial. His output is limited, but well researched, considered and masterfully made. In an oversaturated industry where brands produce extensive collections, he was an intelligent anomaly, and yet without advertising or marketing, Alaïa’s collections have never ceased to appeal. For him, fashion was about meticulous construction, and as a true couturier, he knew all too well the importance of his team. In fact, Alaïa never took a post-show bow for this reason. ‘To get applause just for myself is too disrespectful to the many people helping me.’
Azzedine Alaïa was the first to reject the traditional show schedule, and has always beat to the sound of his own drum, abandoning the show schedule, and refusing to adhere to the industry’s expectations and passing trends. After a period of showing his collections months after the traditional fashion week schedule, Alaïa retired from the show calendar entirely in 1992. However, in July 2011 he returned with a surprise show, starring Naomi Campbell, which received rave reviews, and this was followed a number of years later for Fall 2017 Couture, again fronted by Campbell.
Azzedine Alaïa was more than a dressmaker, and will be remembered most for his intimacy and the close-knit crew that he kept around him always. Here, we share the reactions from industry leaders and fellow designers as they pay tribute to the couturier.
François-Henri Pinault, Chairman and Chief Executive of Kering
‘It is with great sadness that I learned of the passing of Azzedine Alaïa. In the fashion world, he was a great, a major couturier. Everything was at the top with him, couture, art, the standards he aimed at, his dedication to his work, his mastering of techniques, and all the women he dressed. He was an artisan in the noble sense of the term, and a man fiercely attached to his freedom. He was a friend.’
Riccardo Tisci, Designer
‘One of my biggest inspirations! The one who never followed anybody in the fashion world but was followed by everybody! The special and loving friend! I will always love and respect you! And celebrate you the way you taught me… I will miss you.’
Jean Paul Gaultier, Designer
‘He was a great master. He brought together brilliantly technique, couture savoir faire, tradition, and modernity! All the curves of the most beautiful women in the world were enhanced and made sublime by Azzedine Alaïa.’
Cindy Crawford, Model
‘Besides being a creative genius, Alaïa was one of the sweetest people I have ever met. The way he dressed a woman’s body was such a revelation to me as a young model in Chicago because his designs embraced my curves.’
Stephanie Seymour, Model
‘Azzedine’s contribution to the fashion industry is immeasurably far reaching, but to put it simply, he understood both the soul and anatomy of women all over the world. I will be forever grateful for his presence in my life and the influence he had on my heart and in my career. Repose en paix mon Papa.’
Christopher Kane, Designer
‘Azzedine Alaïa was inspirational not just because of his talent in making the most amazing clothes that will forever be unrivalled, but because of his stance on how to do business. He made his own rule book and at the core of that was his dedication to perfection, there is not one living designer doing this. He is a legend.’